A hand holding a mobile phone showing the profile picture for Twitter's own Twitter account.

Mining the biographies of a Twitter user’s followers can reveal the reach and audience of a paper the user shares. Credit: Getty

Society

Twitter followers’ details reveal the power of a paper

Tweets about biology preprints generally come from members of the academic community — but politics also plays a part.

“UK biologist and writer.” That is the only information that outspoken evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins uses to describe himself in his Twitter biography.

Laconic or vague profiles can pose a challenge for researchers interested in how information spreads on social networks and who is responsible for spreading it. But Jedidiah Carlson and Kelley Harris at the University of Washington in Seattle have found that studying the biographies of a Twitter user’s followers can paint a clearer picture of those users and the communities they reach.

The pair analysed tweets about 1,800 papers posted on the biology preprint server bioRxiv. Users associated with academia generated the majority of tweets for 96% of the papers. But political inclinations affected who tweeted about some papers: users with left-leaning lay audiences were the most likely to share ecology preprints, and those with more right-leaning lay followers favoured genetics. The authors noted that 10% of the papers they studied had a prominent right-wing white-nationalist audience.

The authors hope the work will motivate researchers to think about how their findings might be shared and misappropriated.